The Quiet Women’s Revolution in Saudi Arabia

There is not much good news coming out of the Middle East lately. The region is on fire and fighting for its identity and existence. Any scintilla of good news is easily drowned out or dwarfed by their existential threat. The religious and sectarian struggles of the Middle East right now is their version of the Thirty Years War. The final bloody showdown between the two major Christian (Catholic and Protestant) factions and the result was one side will not get rid of other so an uneasy truce was made. It also precipitated a demographic movement which segregated most Europe. The Protestants moved to one area and the Catholics went to another. A European ‘Mason-Dixie’ line was drawn, which roughly divided the European continent into the Protestant north and Catholic south. The ‘southern’ Catholic (and Orthodox) regions begin from the Bavarian state of Germany and below and the northern Protestant regions is everything north of Bavaria. Within these regions some Catholics remain, such as the Flanders region of Belgium and the Protestants in France, but generally speaking, Europe divided itself into the Protestant north and the Catholic south (and Orthodox Christians to the East). The similar happened with the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, while it is technically a ‘power-sharing’ deal but in reality it’s self-segregation between Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants. Each side stayed on their side of the tracks and life went on as such. Visitors to Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, will tell you it’s a quiet and tenuous peace. It’s not a case where Protestants and Catholics walk arm in arm singing Irish folk songs but at least there are no blood on the streets and British soldiers are nowhere in sight. A vast improvement from the height of The Troubles in the 1970s. Many historians predict the Middle East and much of the Islamic world will follow the same pattern. If they can’t coexist in peace together and they are too tired to continue with the bloodshed, they will each go their merry ways and stay in their respective neighborhoods. This is already happening in Baghdad and its nearby towns.

In the midst of all this bloodshed, one small ray of hope emerged from one of the most repressive and misogynistic regimes in the region. Saudi Arabia has allowed women to participate and vote in regional elections for the first time in their history. This arid but oil rich nation is rich in money but primitive in their ways. Women are covered from head to toe in a burka. Women are not allowed to drive. Women are not allowed to travel alone or without the consent of their husbands or fathers. Unrelated women and men may not socialize with each other and it is a society segregated totally by the genders. How much education a woman gets in Saudi Arabia is totally dependent on what her father permits. Women can only participate in the workforce in a limited way, only in industries suitable for women where they do not interact with men. The most insulting by far is women’s testimony can be disregarded in court because according to their interpretation of Islam, the testimony of women cannot be totally trusted because women by nature are too emotional and hysterical so they tend to recall facts incorrectly. This only reflects the daily inconveniences of a woman living in Saudi society. The application of Sharia Law hasn’t even been factored in yet. So the fact that 17 women were voted into public office yesterday in Saudi Arabia is huge and is worthy of celebration and acknowledgement.

Haifa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi Arabian director and the first film from Saudi Arabia, called ‘Wadjda’ was chosen for entry for the 2013 Oscars for Best Foreign Language film, it was an amazing achievement for a Saudi woman considering it’s a country where public movie theaters are banned. Her own countrymen couldn’t even go see the movie that she made. The film was written (also by Al-Mansour), produced, directed and edited in Saudi Arabia. All the actors in the film are Saudi. Haifa Al-Mansour had to direct the film from the back of a van with a walkie-talkie because she could not be seen in public without a burka and be conversing with men. In spite of all these challenges, all of which she knew about beforehand, she chose to make the film in Saudi Arabia because she wanted to be an inspiration for women in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Mansour’s background is conventional and unique at the same time. Her father is Abdul Rahman Mansour, a regional poet of some renown. She is one of 12 children and grew up in a very small and ‘tribal’ town, her father did not impose a strict religious upbringing on them and he didn’t require his daughters to wear the hijab (she still doesn’t wear a hijab). Since movie theaters are banned in her country, she was introduced to movies via VHS videos supplied by her father and he encouraged her dreams of filmmaking. Perhaps most shocking of all, she is married to an American diplomat from California who isn’t Muslim and the names of her children are Adam and Hailey. Al-Mansour says because of her ‘unconventional’ father, they were sort of outcasts in their neighborhood, outcasts for not being traditional enough.

Most of the analysis about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia comes from outsiders, mostly westerners and it’s society and customs are shown in a negative light and rightly so. However, in one interview Al-Mansour did on the program GPS by Fareed Zakaria, she shed some light on how the average Saudi family thinks. Al-Mansour explained that Saudi Arabians are ‘conservative’ and ‘tribal’ by nature, regardless of who is in power. Any change towards liberalization has to come in very small increments. One cannot shove liberalism down the throats of a very conservative society. Being [confront]tational with such a traditional culture will not go down well with the average Saudi, who are conservative people by nature. She also said Saudi culture is one that is very resistant to change, so in order to make change happen, you must do so by ‘widening the margins’ slowly. Al-Mansour will not make films about Saudi Arabia which seek to enrage the establishment. She feels it’s more effective to make a film which is palatable to the average Saudi audience but introduce ideas of small change in their ultraconservative society.

Al-Mansour seems to take all the inconveniences which has been heaped upon her for simply being a woman in an uncompromising land in cheerful stride. It’s also one of the most coherent explanations on why Saudi society is the way it is (irrespective of the powers that be). Though I can’t bring myself to agree with the glacial like progress for women, I can understand it from her point of view. I was happy to learn Al-Mansour’s next project will be filmed in America, about the life of an 18 year old Mary Shelley. She will be directing in full view of the public and she will be giving men direct instructions on what to do. What a relief.

Every journey starts with the first step says a Chinese proverb, and the recent Saudi elections is that first step. We don’t know what or if any real power these women will hold or are they simply just adornments on fake change. In order for this strict interpretation of Islam and enforcement of Sharia Law to last this long, there must be some degree of complicity from its people. Many liken Saudi Sharia Law to the Taliban rule, especially with respect to women’s rights, but with one difference. Saudi Arabia is a wealthy oil producing nation which has the ability to provide well for its citizens. To some, it’s a trade off they can live with. Afghanistan is a poverty stricken country so the harsh Taliban rule only adds to that deprivation. There is no economic trade off with the Taliban rule. People, or specifically women, are not given anything in exchange for giving up their basic human rights.

This historic event will barely register on the western feminist timeline. Many will rightly complain it’s too little too late and the reforms didn’t go far enough and this critique is fair. After all, women in Saudi Arabia, technically still cannot drive, their testimony can still be disregarded in court and they still cannot go anywhere without the consent of a man. But we must take everything into its context and this event in Saudi Arabia of women voting and sitting for local elections for the first time is revolutionary and is worthy to be noted.

Perhaps Al-Mansour is right, one cannot shove liberalism down the throat of fundamentally conservative cultures. That’s a sign of disrespect to the culture. We as westerners are free to disagree with ultraconservative cultures but it’s another to shove our ways down their throats and tell them our way is better because everyone is free. The CIA sponsored overthrow of a democratically elected president Mohammad Mosadegh and instead installed a pro-Western and corrupt Shah Pahlavi, which liberalized Iran a la Western style. Tehrani women abandoned the hijab, wore western style clothing, danced, drank and engaged in licentious behavior, all of which were unacceptable in their culture. It enraged the conservative Iranians who lived outside of Tehran and other big cities and those chickens came home to roost in 1979. The whole country is still reeling from that attempt at modernization.

So, I am here to give my Saudi sisters a shout out at a job well done and may they continue their struggle for their human rights.

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